A strike at Dilico Anishnabek Family Care could put strain on other agencies in Thunder Bay, according to the head of the local Children's Aid Society.
About 350 Dilico workers — many working in child welfare — went on strike in Thunder Bay, Marathon, Longlac and Nipigon on Monday. The agency serves 13 First Nations in the region.
The Children's Aid Society of the District of Thunder Bay would not, and could not, try to replace those employees, said executive director Rob Richardson.
But he noted there are special circumstances when his staff must step in.
"For example ... we have shared foster homes," Richardson said. "We want to support the foster home as best we can and the reality is that there will be children in some of our homes which are Dilico and some are Thunder Bay CAS."
Richardson said both Dilico and Children's Aid have after-hours services and he expects his agency will field more of those calls during the walkout.
Richardson said the extra work could take a toll on already-stretched services.
"The longer [the strike] goes on, the more pressure there will be on all of the community resources and Thunder Bay CAS is a significant part of the commmunity's safety net," Richardson said.
Meanwhile, an expert in First Nations child welfare said the Dilico strike is a symptom of a larger issue.
"At [the] headwaters of this problem is the flawed and inequitable funding provided by the federal government to First Nations agencies," said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
She said inadequate resources lead to unmanageable caseloads for social workers.
"At some point those things ... reach a breaking point," she said.
The director of Aboriginal Services with the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, of which Dilico is a member, said she couldn't comment on the specific labour dispute. However, Karen Hill said First Nations child welfare agencies need more funding.
"The aboriginal caseload is far more challenging and crisis-prone," she said. "These are the kids with the acute medical needs and developmental concerns, mental health issues and addictions issues and ... that takes significant resource[s] to manage."
Hill added that delivering services in a culturally-appropriate manner also costs money and time.
"These are ... all issues that we had hoped would result in a unique funding formula for aboriginal agencies," she said.
Agency denies allegations managers received bonuses
But the union representing the striking workers said it doesn't buy the argument that the agency is cash-strapped.
Communication, Energy and Paperworkers national representative Marvin Pupeza said the union has information that managers received hefty bonuses last year.
"We raised it at the bargaining table that they had increases and improvements to their pension plans and also bonuses," Pupeza told CBC News on Wednesday.
"The employer did not deny it when we raised it at the bargaining table."
But Dilico spokesperson Betty Carpick did deny the allegation to CBC.
"There were no bonuses given to any of the employees, so that is not a true statement," Carpick said, adding that the agency does not want to bargain through the media.
No talks are scheduled between Dilico and the union.